China Shares Some Details of Its New Space Station, Seeks Experimenters

China Shares Some Details of Its New Space Station, Seeks Experimenters

China is planning to launch a three-module China Space Station (CSS) that will be ready for operations around 2022. In cooperation with the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), it is seeking applications from U.N. member states, especially developing countries, to conduct experiments there. As part of its solicitation, it is sharing a 24-page handbook describing in broad terms the research capabilities that will be available.

China’s plans to launch a modular 60-metric ton (MT) space station have been known for some time.  Its first two space stations, Tiangong-1 and Tiangong-2, were quite small, just 8.6 MT each. Tiangong-1 hosted two crews and reentered last month.  Tiangong-2 hosted one crew and remains in orbit, although it is not expected to be visited by additional crews.  It was the target for a test of an automated Chinese resupply vehicle, Tianzhou-1, last year.  (See’s fact sheet on China’s human spaceflight program for more information, available on our Fact Sheets page.)

Their size was limited in part by the capabilities of China’s rockets to put them into orbit, but the advent of the Long March 5 will enable launches of larger payloads. The first Long March 5 successfully placed an experimental satellite into orbit in 2016, but the second launch last year failed.  China hopes to resume operations this year.

UNOOSA’s announcement states that the CSS core module will be launched in 2019, although Andrew Jones of reported earlier this year that Chinese space officials said it had slipped to 2020.

Illustration of China Space Station (CSS) from China’s CSS handbook, available from the United Nations Office of Outer Space Affairs.

The handbook refers to the three modules as the core module (CM) and two experiment modules (EM I and EM II).  Other sources report that the core module is named Tianhe and the experiment modules are Wentian and Mengtian.

CSS will have an airlock and robotic arms.  Crews will travel back and forth on Shenzhou spacecraft and Tianzhou cargo vehicles will resupply the station.  The handbook lists the mass as 66 MT, rather than 60 MT.  It will have a power supply capacity of 27 kilowatts (kw), with payload power consumption capacity of 12 kw.  Three to six astronauts could be onboard for a maximum of 180 days, with two astronauts able to take spacewalks of up to 8 hours. CSS would orbit the Earth between 41-43 degrees inclination at an altitude of 340-450 kilometers.

The handbook does not provide technical details, but lists several science experiment racks that will be available for researchers: human system, medical sample analysis, ecological life experiment, biotechnology, fluid physics, two-phase system, high temperature material science, combustion science, and container-free materials science.  A scientific glovebox, freezers, a high microgravity rack, a variable gravity rack, and others are listed as well.  Exposed payloads also can be accommodated.

Applications must be submitted to UNOOSA by August 31, 2018.  The China Manned Space Agency (CMSA) will pay for launch and operations.  Participants pay the other costs.

CSS will be modest in comparison to the 400-MT International Space Station (ISS), and will be built by China, not as an international partnership like the U.S.-Russian-European-Japanese-Canadian ISS.  However, it will be brand new in 2022, while ISS will be reaching the end of its operational lifetime.  The first ISS module was launched in 1998 and construction was completed in 2010.  ISS has been permanently occupied by crews rotating on 4-6 month schedules since November 2000 — almost 18 years.  The United States and the other partners are currently debating what will replace ISS, with NASA focusing on commercial alternatives.

ISS was preceded by seven successful Soviet/Russian space stations that operated between 1971 and 2001 (Salyut 1, Salyut 3, Salyut 4, Salyut 5, Salyut 6, Salyut 7, and Mir) and one U.S. space station, Skylab (1973-1974).  Mir was permanently occupied by rotating crews for 10 of its 15 years of operation (1986-2001).  NASA astronauts participated in seven long-duration Mir missions during the 1990s after the Cold War ended and Russia joined the ISS partnership.  Eleven U.S. space shuttle missions visited Mir.

NASA is prohibited by law from participating in bilateral human spaceflight cooperation with China, however, unless certain conditions are met and the activity is approved in advance by Congress.  The restriction also applies to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).  The FY2019 Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations bill recently approved by the House Appropriations Committee would extend it to the White House National Space Council, too.


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